What Is Attachment Parenting, & Is It Too Extreme?

Oct 4, 2018 at 11:00 a.m. ET
Attachment parenting: mother babywearing with soft carrier
Image: Lolostock/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

Attachment parenting is a popular way to raise kids at the moment (at least where I live, in Los Angeles). The basic premise is that the primary caregiver is always attuned to their child — this usually translates to being physically close, thus also practicing co-sleeping, breastfeeding (often extended) and babywearing (using slings and wraps rather than strollers). “Attachment parenting is about consciously raising children with the goal of giving them a secure attachment,” Peter Lovenheim, author of The Attachment Effect, tells SheKnows. Sounds great, right? And it is great — in theory. 

Of course it's important to create a secure attachment with your child, especially when they’re just a baby. But some experts (and parents) argue that strictly abiding by all of the tenets of attachment parenting is easier said than done. Criticisms of AP run the gamut: Is it even physically plausible? Is it anti-feminist? Does it produce overly dependent children? What about preventing beneficial conflict and teaching kids resilience?

More: How to Co-Sleep With Your Baby Safely

When I was pregnant with my first child, I thought attachment parenting sounded great. But when my husband and I were actually raising our baby, we adapted what worked and left out what didn’t. For instance, my baby did not enjoy co-sleeping; it kept us both up. Once I put her in her own crib and nursery at around 9 months, she slept through the night. So an AP-approved family bed was not in the cards. I stayed home with my baby, partly because I didn’t understand how I could breastfeed (a job in itself!) and also work outside the home. So I guess I got AP points there. But at times, I eschewed wrapping my child close to my bosom for the back-saving convenience of a stroller. I’ll admit I was relieved when my daughter weaned herself at 10 months and I regained some bodily autonomy. And even worse? I cut my son’s boob access off at a year. Sorry, dude, our “breastfeeding journey” would not be an extended trip.

Do I feel bad about that? Nope. But I definitely try to be mindful and attuned. Recognizing and responding to my kids’ needs is something that I hope I will always do. (Even if they’re watching a movie and I’m on my iPhone — because sometimes, we all need a break!) The thing to keep in mind is that any parenting approach or theory can go too far, and parents should opt for the aspects that work for them. I was able to ignore what didn’t work for my family, but for serious adherents of attachment parenting, that can sometimes be difficult.

Dr. Catherine Pearlman, aka The Family Coach, who is also a mother of two, tells SheKnows that she sees attachment parenting fail many of her clients. “As a family coach, I can tell you that attachment parenting theoretically appeals to many people,” she says. “But often, after a year or two, many parents are exhausted by the constant attentiveness.” Parents come to Pearlman looking for help with sleep issues but also to deal with guilt over not living up to attachment parenting (or ditching it altogether). “There isn't one way to parent, and it's unfortunate that some feel that AP is the ideal way,” she says, “And when they don't feel like they can live up to the principles, they feel badly about themselves.”

Though critics claim attachment parenting can create anxious parents, attachment parenting author Lovenheim says that is not the case. “[F]ar from making parents ‘anxious,’ attachment parenting should make parents confident that they are raising emotionally healthy children who will go on to be confident, well-adjusted adults capable of enjoying trusting, stable and fulfilling adult relationships,” he says.

Lovenheim notes that the basis of attachment parenting is simply attunement. “This means learning to perceive an infant’s cues about their physical and emotional needs, interpreting them correctly and responding appropriately,” he says. So how would that be hard to do? Well, with attachment parenting, it’s best to use childrearing practices that keep the primary caregiver (usually the mother, of course) close: babywearing, breastfeeding and co-sleeping. That’s a whole lot of togetherness! (Although co-sleeping, Lovenheim points out, doesn’t have to mean children in the same bed as the parents, but can mean that they sleep in the same room).

Some parents just aren’t able to be with their children constantly, generally due to work obligations. Some mothers have difficulty breastfeeding or can’t. Some (like myself) have trouble bed sharing. And some parents are just too lazy to figure out how to baby wrap (guilty!). But Lovenheim says one misconception about AP is that it’s about being with your child 24-7. That isn’t actually necessary, he says. “The point is that whenever the parent is with their child — and whoever else is caring for the child in their absence — should be sensitive and attuned to the child’s cues.”

More: The Benefits of Breastfeeding — for You, Not Just the Baby

Des Moines mother of one Nicole Paska Grundmeier agrees. “Attachment parenting is parenting with respect and unconditional love,” she tells SheKnows. “That looks different for every family — you don't have to breastfeed until age 5, use a sling 24-7 and bed share to magically qualify as an attachment parent.” Grundmeier says she still breastfeeds her 2-1/2-year-old and bed shares, but she finds parenting in this way healing. “I didn't want to repeat the yelling, threatening and spanking that I grew up with."

Sara Zaske, mother of two and the author of Achtung Baby, a book on German parenting, tells SheKnows, “Many other cultures don't practice attachment parenting — and yet somehow don't produce entire societies of psychopaths.” Zaske says proponents of extreme attachment parenting (like the kind that the popular Dr. Sears promotes), can inhibit a child's ability to become independent. “Kids, even infants, need some space to figure things out for themselves and engage their own curiosity,” she says. “Parents who jump at every cry and don't let their child play on their own can put up obstacles in the way of their child's growth.”

Speaking of cries, I do tend to jump up and soothe any noise from my kids, as per AP (well, more so when they were babies), but actually, some crying may be healthy for children. Parent educator Kate Orson wrote the book Tears Heal, and she tells SheKnows there is a positive aspect to crying that attachment-parenting proponents may overlook. “One problem with attachment parenting is that the aim can be to do everything in your power to make sure your baby does not cry at all,” Orson says. "Feeding to sleep, always wearing them… it does not take into account the fact that sometimes, babies need to cry — to release stress, as there is cortisol in tears.” She adds that this puts pressure on the parent "that if a baby cries, they are not 'attached' enough, and that just isn't the case.”

Researcher, writer and mother of two Miriam Janechek points out that the burden of attachment parenting lands on women (because they can breastfeed, among other reasons), making it problematic. “There is a sense with this method that a mother's mental and physical health is secondary,” Janechek tells SheKnows, noting that continuous physical and emotional sacrifices from mothers are pushed with attachment parenting. In addition to its anti-feminist leanings, there are classist elements that don’t sit well with Janechek. If you can’t afford to stay at home with your baby, you can’t truly participate in attachment parenting, she points out. “It is an approach that puts a lot of pressure on continuous contact and interaction with your own children, thus not making room for those who choose any other form of childcare; women who cannot afford to stay home or choose not to stay home with their kids are not able to practice this method because it asks for continuous touching and responsiveness.”

Brooklyn writer and mother of two Caolan Madden finds attachment parenting useful despite its potential issues because it gives her permission to follow her own parenting instincts. “I know a lot of people find the books/internet culture associated with attachment parenting to be oppressive, and I don't doubt that that's true — but on the other hand, you're getting messages from parents/doctors/neighbors/other random people on the internet that you'll ‘spoil’ your child if you give too much attention or affection, breastfeed too often or too long, don't sleep train, don't develop strict routines, etc.,” she tells SheKnows. 

Taking what works for you from attachment parenting and not letting it negatively affect your own mental health seems to be the key. Writer and mother of two Shana Westlake agrees. “The problem with attachment parenting is not the idea of it or the practice of it,” Westlake tells SheKnows. “It’s the way it's presented on the internet as an all or nothing way to raise your kids.” She notes that there are mothers in fragile postpartum states who may get caught up and feel too much pressure. “When breastfeeding doesn't work out or co-sleeping means no one gets any sleep or being attached to your baby full-time means your relationship with your partner is suffering, it's not healthy.”

More: The Best (AKA Easiest) Baby Carriers on the Market 

So, yes, bond with your baby and stay close to them. Create that secure attachment and be attuned to their emotional state. It is important. Says Lovenheim: “…[T]he quality of that first relationship during the first two to three years — whether stable and loving or inconsistent or even absent — will actually shape the developing brain and influence how that individual behaves in relationships throughout life.” But you can only do so much, and if you need to check your phone for a few minutes or even bottle-feed, your baby can still thrive.

Mother of two Keema Waterfield took a "circle of security" class, which is a sort of less-stringent version of attachment parenting. “It suggests that parents who do their honest best at least 30 percent of the time will raise emotionally secure and bonded children,” she tells SheKnows. That number sounds a bit more realistic to me — and to Waterfield, who says that she keeps this in mind while parenting and being present with her children. “And knowing that I don’t have to be perfect to raise a successful human gives me immense comfort.”

If you’d like to see what kind of attachment parent you are, Lovenheim recommends taking this research-based quiz.

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